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Short Story

WHEN I show up to retrieve my brother, all reformed and reborn, from the state penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska, the first thing he says to me is, “Hey, Spook.” It’s an old family nickname we don’t use anymore.

Kip has a short haircut, not like the last time I saw him. He’s been buzzed close enough to his scalp that you can see veins standing out on his skull above his ears, and there are thin spots where it looks as though the hair has been rubbed completely off. The collar of his shirt hangs open so you can see the beaded tracheotomy scar at the base of his throat, and he has a washed-out tattoo half-covered by the short sleeve of his shirt, a girl’s face with Lauralee written in script on a scroll underneath it. We shake hands and he says, “Thanks for coming.”

The warden himself is there. A short, rocky man with a wrinkled forehead and bristly gray eyebrows. He shakes my hand, too.

“Mr. Reeves,” he says—this is a speech he knows by heart—“your family’s support has been key to Kip’s rehabilitation. You’ve helped save a young man.” He shakes my hand again—his grip is softer than you’d think—then Kip’s. He tells Kip, “Don’t hurry back.”

“Yes, sir,” Kip says. The warden gives him a last hard stare, then nods to himself.

Outside, Kip and I are alone together for the first time in what has to be almost five years, and I’m waiting for his lead, the heat ironing the clothes to my body. He shades his eyes with the flat of his hand against the white sun, while the prairie wind blouses and flaps his shirt, and says to me, “Where to?”

“I’ve got a rental,” I say. “We’ve got a one-thirty flight out of Omaha to Chicago.”

“Could we do one thing?” he says while he waits for me to unlock the car door.

“Yeah,” I say, nervous, wondering what it will be. Does he want a drink? Is there somebody he wants to call? What’s the thing he’s missed most in prison?

“Can I get some new clothes?” is all he says. He’s got on the jeans he must have been wearing when they caught him and some old high-top tennis shoes with the toes wrapped in duct tape. No new suit.

“We’ve got Visa,” I tell him. “We’re nationwide. What do you want?”

He blows out an exaggerated sigh while he settles back into the squeaky imitation leather of the seat, like he’s been on his feet for days. “I want to go home.”

§

Kip can’t go home exactly. While he has been in prison most of the past three years, our family has moved from Midvale, Utah, a Salt Lake suburb, to Atlanta.

“What’s it like there?” Kip’s talking over the slatted half-door of the dressing stall. Leaning against the wall outside, I can see his white bare legs and ratty socks.

“Green,” I say. “Muggy. Crowded. Big.” This is my impression from phone calls and one Christmas vacation. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, right now. I haven’t spent much time down south myself.

Kip comes out in pale blue jeans and a white shirt with short sleeves that cover most of his tattoo. In his new clothes and severe haircut, he looks like he’s just come back from somewhere foreign—a soldier, missionary, cancer patient. I toss him a three-pack of Adidas cotton crew socks on his way to the register.

“Forgot,” Kip says, grinning while he looks at the socks. He’s lost a tooth somewhere, and the hole in his grin gives it a jack-o’-lantern quality. A friendly clerk hands him a bag for his old clothes, then snips off the price tags at his waist and under his arm.

“I’ll get by with the shoes,” Kip says.

“It’s all right,” I say. “Dad’s treat.” But Kip shakes his head and keeps walking.

“I’ll wait,” he says. “I don’t know what anybody’s wearing anymore.”

“Anything expensive,” I tell him.

“I seen the new ones with the air pumps inside on TV,” Kip says. “Saw a lot of TV. Watched the war, most of it. You see that?”

“Hard to miss,” I agree. CNN was live from the Persian Gulf twenty-four hours a day at first. We had stood around a TV in the graduate offices those first nights, watching the smart bombs seek and destroy, worrying about the scuds hitting Israel.

Kip whistles and shakes his head as we push our way out of the softly lit, air-conditioned world of retail into the wind and sun—it’s a gesture I’ve never seen from him; I can’t read it. He catches me looking at him sidelong and asks me what I’m going to do now that I’m out of school—for the second time, with my master’s.

“Find a job. Go back. I don’t know.”

“You and me,” he says. “Sufficient is the day, and the evil thereof.” He stops his recitation to arc his bag of old clothes into a garbage can in the parking lot with a graceful foul shot. “Swish,” he says, then gives me a grin that, knowing what I know, might have come from John Wayne Gacy himself: the friendly clown, with murder in his heart. Though my brother is not a monster. Just a bad actor.

“You play much in there?” I say over the car door while we get in.

“Toward the end,” Kip says. He doesn’t tell me why the wait.

§

The man I was really curious to meet while I was retrieving Kip, the one we’ve all wondered so much about, wasn’t there at the prison. This would be Brother William “Billy” Blair. Kip simply said, when I asked, that Billy was at work and couldn’t get away.

In a letter he wrote to my family, Brother Blair explained how he himself had never been in prison—excepting the prisons of spiritual ignorance and sin, of course. But he felt the call, after his own salvation, to labor among the lost sheep in the Nebraska penal system. He held an evangelical service at the prison twice a month and Bible study every Thursday night. The Bible was his only text, he explained, though he confessed that for a time he’d maintained some interest in the ministry of Herbert J. Armstrong. But it was the Bible (he himself being particularly fond of the gospel of Saint John and the letters of Saint Peter, where Christ preached to the spirits in prison), it was hearing the word (so says Romans 10:17), that led to faith and brought a man or woman to the baptism of fire to become a son or daughter of God.

This is the man my father talked to once on the phone about Kip, whose voice my mother could hear from across the room, not in words, but as punctuation. “Fine boy” and several different intonations of “Jesus” were the only things she could make out distinctly, and when my father explained the conversation after he hung up, those were the few words he could remember himself.

“What is he?” my mother wanted to know.

“What do you mean ‘what is he’?”

“What religion? What does he do there?”

“He says he’s just a lay shepherd, and the inmates there are his flock.”

My mother, I imagine, let out a sigh, closed her eyes, and sank back against the couch.

“He sounds like a sincere man,” my father said.

I don’t know what it is about Christians with a capital C. Maybe it’s their fervor, the certainty that seems so much like delusion to outsiders—that faith to walk firm into the mouths of lions, confident as Daniel, until their bones are snapped, their flesh torn and left for dark-winged scavengers to pick. It’s not that we aren’t believers. My whole family, Kip included, is fifth-generation Mormon—a faith with some fervor and certainty of its own, I admit. We’re the Jews of the Christian world, with truth traced back to Adam and a birthright come through Joseph of Egypt, our own custom list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, and it’s hard for my mother to think that some part-time holy roller has done anything for her son that growing up on Sunday school and family prayer kneeling around my parents’ bed at nights couldn’t do. The only Bible thumping that ever got Kip’s attention was a thump on the head, is how she puts it.

Brother William “Billy” Blair claims my brother is a walking miracle. My mother knows that Brother Blair offered a word at Kip’s parole hearing and has her own opinion about her son’s recent coming into the fold.

“He just wanted to get out,” she’s said. “He’s always gotten what he wanted.”

§

Kip naps while I drive to the airport. I turn the AC down low and leave the radio tuned to quiet jazz, a low buzz of clarinet over a flood of standup base and trombone that must be coming from Chicago. I imagine I could see Chicago from here if I got out and stood on the hood. I don’t know what ever brought Kip this way. I know while he was here he stole a car and then some thousand-dollar watches. When the police came after him, he ran. That and his juvenile record all added up.

“They say he’ll serve at least two or three years,” my dad reported when he came home from the trial. “Then he might be up for parole if he behaves.”

“He did it this time,” my mother said.

“He’s scared, Geri,” my dad told her.

“And I haven’t been?” she said. She bit her words off in a nervous hiss I had been hearing from her since before Kip even got to be a teenager. My dad just let it go.

That first year with Kip in jail set my mother and father out in two different ships on some wide ocean. Sometimes my mother wanted sympathy and made herself a burden among the sisters at church. “It’s so hard,” she would tell them. “I feel so guilty.” Other times she was simply ashamed. My father has always been honest and hopeful. He told people how Kip was coming around, working on his GED, starting to write home.

“If he changes now,” I’ve heard my father parrot a hundred times over the past three years, “then he’s better off for whatever’s happened.”

Whether or not my parents moved in hopes of a fresh start, Atlanta has been an island for the two of them, a strange land where they knew no one and came together again, buying a new house, full of plans like newlyweds. I knew, when I came down from Madison, that their relationship had grown around what had happened to Kip like a rosebush will around a piece of stone. I found a mildly racy love note on the piano. Mom was taking painting classes. Dad was jogging mornings with a new dog.

Still, Kip has been a sore spot. The first time my father called to tell me about Kip’s coming to live with them in Atlanta if the parole board approved it, my mother said quietly over the extension, “You know the leopard’s changed his spots.” She hung up a few moments later.

“We’re going to see how it goes,” Dad told me.

Who or what Kip is now, I can’t say, but I can tell you what he was: truant, hostile, a petty thief who robbed purses and dresser drawers, sassy, a drunk, antisocial with anybody except a few friends who were always changing. My dad kept saying he’d grow out of it. My mother washed her hands of him by the time he was seven.

Kip was never very big, but he had a raging temper and a willingness to hurt people that gave him an edge. We were upper-middle-class, white, family folk, helpless and bewildered in the face of real violence. Kip could go wild, past all reason or control. I remember my dad practically lying down on top of him, pinning his arms, trying to keep his legs from kicking, telling him he’d better just calm down.

I click the radio off, roll the window down enough to dangle my fingers out of the top, and let the hot wind thread through them.

Late during the last summer we lived at home together, a friend of Kip’s called me to say he and Kip were stranded. Kip was pretty wasted, and their ride had ditched them. I covered for him, though it was no big surprise, telling my father when he stumbled into the kitchen to see who was on the phone that it was somebody from work who needed my keys.

Kip and his buddy were sitting underneath the far basket on an asphalt court behind an elementary school when I got there, the space lit like a boxing ring from a single street lamp high up on a pole. I saw the glowing end of a cigarette being stubbed out while Kip struggled to his feet. He tossed a bottle onto the dark grass as I walked up.

I stood there spinning my key ring around on my finger while Kip’s friend got up behind him and gave me a weak wave. I didn’t say anything, figuring it was up to Kip to ask me for whatever he wanted. He ducked his head and laughed back toward his buddy. In the half dark, his face looked out of joint, sloppy and loose, like you could have slapped his jaw and it would have waggled and swayed like a bag of gelatin. He had been in a fight or fallen; one of his eyes was swollen partway shut.

Finally, he stripped off his shirt and pushed past me to see if I still had a basketball in the back seat. He crawled halfway in the window of the car and came out with the ball, dribbling and weaving past me again on his way to the hoop, his pants starting to slip, showing the waistband of his boxer shorts. He scooped an underhand lay-up that hit the top of the backboard while he stumbled on past and fell onto the grass in the shadows. His buddy picked up the ball and passed it back to Kip, who shot me a chest pass from the edge of the blacktop.

“Do your stuff,” he said. I put the ball on the ground twice, then pulled up and banked in a fifteen-foot jumper. By then Kip was behind me. I scooped up the ball before it could roll off the blacktop and bounced it to him at half court, lining up at just about the top of the key to let him see if he could dribble past me.

Kip didn’t wobble as he started. He dribbled a few steps to one side, worked forward a bit, keeping the ball close to his body while I shadowed him. I could smell the alcohol as I bodied up, bumping to steer him down toward the baseline where he had a hard time hitting, keeping him outside, away from his game. Then suddenly he drove, checking me as he went past.

I took his lowered shoulder in my chest, and I felt his forearm against my ribs, his head coming up under my chin. My teeth knocked together and I bit my tongue as I fell backward, sprawling with my hands behind me onto the blacktop. Kip drove on to the basket and laid in the ball while I watched from my back, thinking about what I had felt when we collided. Bone and heat. He could just as well have used a stick. I was a head taller than he was, twenty pounds heavier or more, but it wouldn’t do me any good. He knew it, and now I did, too.

We never had to test it. Two weeks later, I left for college. Since then, I’ve never really been back.

§

The flight to O’Hare from Omaha is a short hop, just up and down. I buy lunch in a Burger King at the airport, and Kip bows his head over the red plastic tray. I am religious, but not about fast food. I wait until he finishes before I unwrap my sandwich.

“Tastes better that way,” Kip says when he glances up.

“It didn’t help Mom’s Mexican nights.”

“She’s never even met a Mexican.”

“She didn’t use meat,” I point out. “It was TVP.”

“Pretty bad when you screw up tacos.”

I ask him what he’s been eating the past few years, figuring it’s probably not so different from the cafeteria food I put away back when I lived in the dorms. I’m working up to what I want to know: what it’s like to be out, more about what it was like to be inside, why, exactly, he prays now over hamburgers. I open my own out of habit to inspect it for pickles and pass him some ketchup for his fries.

Kip has stayed close to me in the store and the airports, not flexing his new freedom like I thought he might. I imagined he might want to stop by a bar or a liquor store, maybe ask if he could drive, or even just roll down the widow and hang his arm out of the car, take in the country. Even, once we were in the clear, that he might refuse to accompany me to Atlanta at all; in the most fantastic scenes, he steals the car, or I’m taken hostage by my own brother at the outset of a clichéd Midwestern crime spree. Once we got his clothes and I filled him in on our travel plans, though, he’s mostly just slept.

I was twenty-three when Kip was arrested in Nebraska, and I was never embarrassed at his being in prison—unless you count embarrassing myself. It was like having a brother in the pros or Hollywood. For almost two years, anybody I met knew within half an hour that I had a younger brother in the Nebraska State Penitentiary. I had never been poor or tough or bad, and I liked the shadow Kip cast across my name. It made me feel a little less like white bread. I worked my dad for information, wrote Kip—who didn’t write back—a couple of times. I wanted to know everything. I was proud.

In a letter he sent my dad a few months ago, Kip hinted that his first year had been harsh and ugly. I imagine that he’d gone in mean still, quick-fused and wild, but leftover adolescent fury left him outmatched among the big boys, and he wound up, at least once, in the infirmary. Which is where he met Billy Blair.

He’d asked Kip where he was from, and when Kip told him Utah, without a second’s pause Billy Blair asked him, “Are you a Mormon?” like he found Mormon boys from Utah in the infirmary of a Nebraska prison all the time.

Kip told him no. He hadn’t had much to do with church other than hanging around with the bottle-passers in the parking lot at Saturday night dances since he was about fourteen. Brother Blair said it didn’t matter if he believed in God, Buddha, or Brigham Young, why didn’t he drop by the Christian service being held the next day?

“I’d heard about him,” Kip says, stabbing a fry into a puddle of ketchup. “He was always wearing the same stinky blue suit and this sorry rug. Somebody must’ve gave it to him, or he used to dye his hair, ’cause it was black as your shoes, but the rest of his hair down around his ears was real dark brown or starting to go gray. He asked how was I feeling about things, and I told him mostly I felt pretty pissed. Then he said would I do something for him and read in the book of Luke, chapter 15, then come tell him how I felt about that sometime.”

He left Kip one of those little red New Testaments that toss in the Psalms for good measure. There was nothing else to do, so Kip read. When Billy came back and asked what he thought, Kip told him he thought it was just a story, that’s all, and his father had given him exactly half of nothing when he’d left. Brother Blair said, Fine, this week why don’t you read about the publican and the Pharisee, or the Good Samaritan, or John chapter 3, on and on.

“He never said nothing about God getting bent or going to hell, just that Jesus’d already paid your way for the other direction. I’d go on Thursday nights, and he’d get the same little crowd every week, all bent over their Bibles, some who didn’t even know how to read. Billy’d be up there trying to get us to sing or going off on how much Jesus loved sinners, spit flying, down on his knees, begging us to come back home.”

“Sounds like he put on a show,” I say. “Is that why you went?”

“He was kind of a comical man,” Kip says. “But he meant what he told you, every word.” He wads up the wrapper from his lunch, then tells me he needs to use the bathroom. I tell him that’s a good idea while I gather the wrappers from our burgers, which leave my hands smelling like onions, and stack our trays. Then I hoist my flight bag onto my shoulder and come along. Dad’s done some fancy dancing to get Kip the okay to come to Atlanta, where he’s expected for a meeting with a local parole officer at 9:20 tomorrow morning. I don’t have handcuffs or a marshal’s badge; in lieu of that, I keep my brother in sight.

§

In the plane, I ease my watch enough to let Kip take the aisle—he’s decided that the window makes him nervous. Kip tells me, as he looks around at the molded plastic walls of the cabin, the seatbelt lights, the overhead luggage bins gaping open, that he has never flown before today.

“Are you sure?”

“I never been anywhere on a plane,” he assures me.

“It gets to be like taking a taxi,” I say to him, then realize he’s probably never done that either. “This is a Rolls compared to that prop job we came in on from Omaha. You’ll like it.”

“I haven’t even got a driver’s license,” Kip says. “What are the folks cruising in these days?”

“Mom’s got a new Toyota. Dad’s still driving the orange Volvo.”

Kip snorts. The car’s almost as old as he is, and almost as much trouble.

I wonder why nobody is getting ready for takeoff. Kip’s looking around the plane, a little too obvious about letting his eyes rest on and follow a petite flight attendant in pressed blue slacks with a matching vest and a white blouse. She’s neat and attractive, with her chestnut hair swept up off her neck and out of the way in a clip, the sharp creases up the back of her pant legs coming to two puckered points right atop her tight little backside. Sainthood apparently hasn’t bred everything out of him. Kip watches until she disappears into first class, then turns to me.

“How long we have to wait here?”

I shake my head. “Usually not this long. O’Hare’s crazy, though. You get a lot of delays.”

“What time are we supposed to meet Dad?”

“About eight-thirty. We lose an hour going east.”

“That’s funny how that works,” Kip says, half to himself, shifting his weight and pawing through the seat-rack in front of him, then looking up at me for approval before he pulls out the in-flight magazine.

We find out after almost half an hour that the cause of the delay is a broken seat a few rows behind us. Nobody needs to sit in it—nobody needs to sit in that whole row—but we can’t take off with it broken. All around us the murmurs start up and the air phones begin dropping out of the seatbacks.

“What kind of law is that?” Kip says.

“Airline regs,” I tell him, wiggling my feet out of my loafers.

“What’s a seat nobody’s sitting in got to do with flying an airplane?”

“I don’t know. I guess it could come loose and hurt somebody and they could sue.”

Kip flips through the last pages of his magazine, then works it back into the pouch on the seat in front of him. I’m trying to think of something I could bring up to get his mind off things. Kip watches another flight attendant bustle up the aisle, then hits me in the arm and asks if I’ve got a girlfriend.

“Not right now,” I say.

“I was counting on you, man. You always had a couple on deck.”

“Everybody’s looking for commitment these days,” I tell him. “What about you? Were you seeing anybody before?”

Kip narrows his eyes. “Nah,” he says, absently reaching for his empty shirt pocket. He sees me notice and gives me a short laugh.

“Four weeks,” he says. “I knew Mom wouldn’t like it in the house.”

“That’s probably been tough.”

“Smoking?”

I shrug. “Wasn’t it?”

“It’s something to do, you know?”

I nod. I guess I know, or think I do.

“Does Mom want me coming back?” Kip says.

“They’ve got a room all fixed up.”

“Dad does.”

“They live in the same house.”

“We weren’t getting along so good last time I saw her.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“It does if I’m going to be living in her house,” he says, reaching down to loosen his shoelaces.

“Did she ever say she didn’t want you there?”

Kip grins up at me. “Lots of times.”

“I don’t know if anybody’s put up yellow ribbons,” I tell him. “She’s not sure what she should tell people.”

“She could not tell them anything. Or she could tell them the truth. She’ll think of something.”

I’m watching Kip while he talks. You can see her, actually, in his face, the pointed chin, thin nose. Kip rolls his eyes toward the cabin ceiling and starts cracking his knuckles by pulling on his fingers one at a time.

After a while he says, “Hey, do you know this? It’s from the Bible. Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.”

“Must be from Jonah.”

Kip nods his head, ignoring my joke. He’s got his eyes closed as he goes on.

“They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head: they that would destroy me, being mine enemies wrongfully, are mighty: then I restored that which I took not away.

“O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee.

“Let not them that wait on thee, O Lord God of hosts, be ashamed for my sake: let not those that seek thee be confounded for my sake, O God of Israel.

“Because for thy sake I have borne reproach; shame hath covered my face.

“I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children.

“For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.”

He sighs when he’s finished. He leans forward, his elbows on his knees.

“That’s nice,” I say. I am genuinely impressed that he can quote me scripture—that he can quote me anything—though the passage sounds a little self-serving. I think maybe Kip’s forgetting which side of the fence he’s been living on.

“Yeah,” he says. “Do you think Dad can get me a job?”

“Have you asked him?” I don’t tell Kip that we’ve talked about it. That he’d like to, but he doesn’t know.

“Not yet.”

“How’d your GED go?”

“I finished that,” Kip says, rubbing his palms together so hard I can hear them squeak. “There’s always something people can hang you for if they’re the kind who look for it.”

“People just don’t know what to think,” I say.

“I know,” he says. “I asked for it.”

“Sort of,” I tell him.

“What do you think?”

“About what?”

“I just got out of jail.”

I consider this for a minute. The question’s a test, one that might open doors later on, one where anything you say might be used against you.

“I thought it was cool, I guess,” I say. “Probably shouldn’t have.”

“What’s cool about it?”

I shrug. “It’s just something different. Nobody else had a brother in prison.”

“You’re messed up. It’s not like TV.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t.” Kip’s heating up. “So what—you’re out there bragging about it?”

“I was just trying to meet women.” Kip looks up at me. I lean my head back against the seat. “Nobody cared if I told them I’d just been to Paris,” I tell him. “You were hot. I made you out to be this desperado.”

“How’d you do?”

I hold out an empty palm. Kip goes back to looking at his hands in his lap.

“You should have told them to write me.”

“You want to be a service project?”

“You know any of them still?”

I shake my head.

“So are you going to keep up the church thing?” I ask him.

“Your church?”

Our church. It’s a fight I’m not going to let him pick right now.

“Church,” I say. “Wherever. Like you’ve been doing.”

“You think they’ll let me in?”

“I’m just wondering about your plans.”

“I don’t know. What’s it like where you live?”

“Cold,” I tell him. Actually, Madison’s a party town. He’d love Madison.

“You worried I’m going to show up at your door?”

There are times, situations, when you are expected to lie, when it will make no difference anyway: “No, officer, I didn’t realize.” “It’s not you, it’s me.” She’ll know you’re lying; but at least she’ll know it’s over. Generally, we’re too gutless to do otherwise, or we’re brought up to be polite; but what we really don’t want is to be there to watch. Am I glad right now that I don’t live in Atlanta, that I’m gone in a couple of days and there’s nothing I have to offer: loan my car, open my wallet and grin while I pass out twenties, make up a bed in my apartment?

“You want me to draw you a map?” I say.

“Did you know Judas and Jesus were brothers?”

“Really?” I say. I’ve never heard that one.

Kip nods, scraping at a thumbnail that has caught his attention. And it’s me that feels guilty.

“But I’m cool,” he says. I don’t know who the smile on his face is for.

Behind us, a businessman is raising his voice to rag on a flight attendant about being late. I drag my glasses off and squeeze my forehead. I’m uncomfortable around angry people, especially in confined public spaces: when a zealot starts coughing extra loud if someone lights up a cigarette in the bleachers, when couples make a scene, or some hothead’s bullying a waiter in a restaurant. The air between Kip and me now doesn’t help.

“What’s she supposed to do about it?” I say, tipping my head toward where the flight attendant’s standing.

Kip agrees, twisting to look down the aisle behind his seat. I stare at his arm while his hand grips the armrest next to me. Kip’s lost weight in prison. He looks a little gaunt compared to how I remember him, a little smaller and pale, but I recognize the hard hands with their swollen tendons, the muscles standing out on his forearm, a model for an anatomy text. When he was little he used to get kids in a Mr. Spock grip alongside the neck and crank it on until they cried; in junior high, he hit one of his teachers—I can’t remember what for now, just that he got suspended. He feels no pain in his hands. I’ve seen him punch glass.

My mother is—I don’t know what she is. Resigned, maybe. Doubtful. I think they liked to spar, she and Kip, or they grew accustomed to it. She’s wary; that’s probably it. My father’s being the good soldier he’s always been. But will they lend him the keys? Lock up the silver? It’s Kip beside me. Thinner, less hair. Billy Blair talked about him like an altar boy. He’s wearing a cross, not an icon of our faith; he’s worn one before, in his ear. I think he’s grown up a bit; that may be all they’re hoping for back home. I’ll be back at Thanksgiving. Then we’ll see.

Mr. Gripe-’n-moan is interrupted when a pair of mechanics in blue coveralls excuse themselves to get past the flight attendant so they can have a look at the row of seats. We all watch them as best we can, straining and twisting over seatbacks, heads poking out into the aisle. The captain or copilot, someone in a white dress shirt and gold wings, has come from the cockpit for the diagnosis.

I can hear the metal clank of tools, and over the back of Kip’s chair I can see a pair of scuffed, black work boots sticking out into the aisle. Someone says, “Move over, Jerry,” and the boot toes wobble along the carpet.

“We can take it out,” I hear them report to the crewman after their inspection. “But we can’t fix it.”

“Going to be a while, I guess,” Kip says. He folds his hands and closes his eyes while the captain makes an announcement. We could be cleared to go any minute so he doesn’t want to let us off the plane. They can’t serve dinner on the ground, but please relax, and anything the crew can do to make us more comfortable, we should just ask. The grumbling stops for a while, and I drop back into my seat. I’ve got ibuprofen in my carryon, but I decide to leave it where it is, shoved under the seat in front of Kip’s feet.

After half an hour, I am ready to change my mind. The cabin is full of people shifting in their seats, restless buzzing talk, people getting up to stretch while the flight attendants try to keep the aisle clear. Their smiles are wearing thin, and I imagine they are pouring a lot of booze up in first class if it’s allowed. A baby starts crying in the back, and this gets Kip up and looking around. He asks me what time it is as the man behind us starts in on the flight attendant again.

I hear the flight attendant explaining how they are trying to reach someone over the telephone who can give us permission to fly with the seat broken, that or to have it removed and fly without it.

“And how long is that going to take?” It’s a voice that sounds used to giving orders and making complaints, the kind you dread hearing in front of you in line. Kip and I are both listening now.

“Mr. Lambert is out of town right now, but they expect to locate him and have him paged any moment. I really think we should be off within fifteen minutes. I’m very sorry, sir,” the flight attendant is saying.

“We’ve already been sitting here over an hour.”

“I know that, sir, but air traffic regulations are very strict. They should have a waiver for us any minute.”

“I don’t know what kind of half-assed outfit you’re running,” he’s saying. Kip’s out of his seat.

“I’m going to go talk to him a minute,” he says, like it’s somebody he knows from back home he’s just seen across a lobby. He’s down the aisle before I can get a word in, a hand on his arm. I turn and watch as Kip slips into the seat across the aisle from the guy while the flight attendant nods at his complaints. She’s come to the end of what rope she has left, I can see it in her bristling stance, and I don’t know if she wants to cry or tell the man that she will personally relocate his luggage into the orifice of his choice and he can shank it all the way to Georgia for all she cares. I’m ready to get up and go after Kip when I see her walk away and Kip lean across the aisle.

“Hey,” I hear him say, and I turn around and plop down in my seat. I reach for the flight attendant as she heads up the aisle, but then I don’t know what I would tell her: my brother’s back there; he’s been really good all day, but he’s kind of like a pop can—you shake him, and he explodes. This is it. I take two big breaths, though I don’t know what I’m going to do with the extra air.

I hear the man’s voice rise again. When I look down the aisle, I see Kip listening from across the cabin, his elbow propped on an armrest and his chin in his hand. I wonder if this man knows yet who he’s talking to, what Kip will tell him: “This is nothing. Let me tell you where I came from.” While I watch, I see Kip grin and say something I can’t hear. I can’t hear the man’s voice anymore, either. Kip ducks his head and nods.

The chatter that stopped or turned icy when the man started his complaining is buzzing again around the cabin, and in ten minutes there’s a cheer as Mike and Jerry, the mechanics, come back to remove the bank of seats.

Kip gets up as they start to work, and I see him reach in like he’s slapping a buddy on the shoulder. I can’t begin to guess what he’s said—a line of Billy Blair’s, some raunchy ditty from the exercise yard; I don’t know—but he catches me peeking around the seat and gives me a thumbs-up like he’s just some guy mugging for his friends. Nobody I know.

We should get off the plane. We should get off, and I should call and explain that my brother needs relocation; he needs a new name on the magazine labels, a place in a desert suburb where the blocks of houses look like identical teeth on a zipper in photographs from space—someplace where he casts no shadow. A brother there to warn him, so he’ll be ready when he does. Then he’s coming my way, straight into my two-faced grin, this new man, bright from the waters of Jordan and born again.


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